Saturday, 2 October 2010

Argument or facts? Ian Mortimer's Medieval Intrigue

This post has been inspired by Ian Mortimer’s ‘Medieval Intrigue’, recently published. In fact, it’s basically a review of the book plus my thoughts. My interest in Edward II was sparked by the Jean Plaidy novel ‘The Follies of the King’ back in the 1980s. I was ‘brought up’ on Jean Plaidy, with my mother being an avid reader with a deep love of history. From a very young age – I can certainly remember being as young as 7, my mother would always tell me ‘historical stories’, and I started reading Plaidy when I was about 10. I was always in the library where they had a whole shelf of her novels, and then I discovered they had a complete set of the reference books she had used – ‘Lives of the Queens of England’, by Agnes Strickland, and Saturday afternoons were spent reading various volumes. Of course, I was also reading the ‘serious’ historical books by now, although there were none on Edward II at my local library. I must have been about 12 when I read ‘Follies’, and as always, with my interest sparked by Plaidy, I set about finding information on him. Thus the story that Edward II was murdered at Berkeley Castle with a red hot poker was fact to me – it had really happened, and I remember being appalled when I read his screams had been heard through the thick walls of the castle, and it had all been done by his wicked queen Isabella and her lover Mortimer. I was shocked that Edward III allowed the murderers to walk around without revenge. I then duly convinced my parents a few years later to take me to Berkeley castle to see the scene of the crime and visit Edward’s tomb in Gloucester Cathedral. ‘Follies’ had also sparked my interest in Piers Gaveston as well. I never questioned Edward II’s fate. At University, I specialised in medieval history and wrote an essay on Edward II, accepting the death of Edward II in 1327. I eventually allowed my interest to wane in that particular area, as there were so few books available - and no Internet – and developed my interest in other parts of history. I then came across Ian Mortimer’s ‘Greatest Traitor’, which frankly astonished me, and I readily dismissed his case that Edward II had survived. Plaidy’s books were re-issued, and I bought ‘Follies’, which led me to Kathryn’s marvellous Edward II site. It’s down to Kathryn that I no longer accept the red hot poker story, and began to accept that Edward might have survived. I feel myself very fortunate that she shared some of her research with me and answered all my questions. Because, as Ian Mortimer rightly states, once we are ‘brought up’ on so-called historical facts that have been unchallenged, it becomes very difficult for us to question and reject them. He uses the example of Alfred burning the cakes – I was brought up on that, reading the Ladybird history books – Florence Nightingale had her lamp, Walter Raleigh laid down his coat for Queen Elizabeth and Alfred burnt the cakes. As I got older, it became ‘the weather saved England from the Armada’ and Jane Grey was brutally beaten by her parents and was the idealised Protestant martyr. There were books that tried to challenge accepted views, and history, as Mortimer says, became split into ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionalists’. There’s also the charge that some historians are ‘conspiracy theorists’ – popular subjects included ‘JFK’ and Princess Diana, and even Dan Brown challenged with ‘The Da Vinci Code’, which in the UK had been flagged up in ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’. (I should point out that I don’t consider Dan Brown a historian at all – but Ian Mortimer points out that he was placed alongside him in a review of his article ‘The Death of Edward II’, which I think is dreadfully unfair).

I want to return to my University days for a moment. One aspect of my degree was the ‘methodology’ of history. My preference was always for the ‘narrative’ aspect of history. I remember being set a task using comparative case studies – not involving Edward II or indeed any king. But it shaped my interpretation of Edward II being murdered – because isn’t that what happens to all deposed monarchs? Any usurper would not keep the former king alive, as they would surely be a continual threat to them. The cases of Richard II and Edward V convinced me that Edward II would have to have been disposed of – murdered on the orders of Isabella and Mortimer. It was Kathryn that got me to re-asses this – because the cases are not the same at all. Edward II was deposed before Richard II and Edward V, and there was no real precedent for deposing kings and what should happen to them in his case study. Edward II was deposed to make way for his son, Edward III, by his mother and Mortimer – it was not his idea or actions which deposed his father, so he is not a usurper in the sense that Henry IV was. He was very much the ‘puppet’ of them, being only 15. Mortimer’s hold, in particular, was tenuous, for Edward III would surely seek to rule on his own, and Mortimer could find himself in real danger, especially if the story that he had had the king’s father ‘murdered’ became known. Would it therefore make sense to ‘fake’ the former king’s death from natural causes, and keep him a prisoner, and use him as a ‘force’ against his own son when he needed to?

Mortimer’s book is not about putting forward the ‘argument’ that Edward II did not die in 1327 – he uses facts to show that he did not. I’ve questioned Kathryn time and again about the points raised to prove Edward II was alive – and they always seemed to be ‘I’m not convinced’ or trying to find other meanings to challenge the evidence – like what on earth Lord Berkeley meant when he said he did not know Edward II was dead in 1330 – maybe the translation was wrong? Or maybe he didn’t know he had been murdered? Likewise the account of the Earl of Kent seeing his brother at Corfe Castle – surely it was an impostor set out to entrap Kent, who was known for his gullibility? And as for Edward III supposedly meeting his father in Cologne – well, that could have been an impostor trying his luck – after all, hadn’t there been people trying to impersonate either of the ‘little princes in the Tower’? Except that in Mortimer’s book, and in discussions with Kathryn, Lord Berkley’s words are a literal translation, Kent was not gullible and there were many other important men who supported his rebellion, and the ’impostor’ at Cologne seems to have had nothing to gain, was never punished and in fact was never referred to as an impostor.

Mortimer has written a stunning book in which he proves that Edward II was alive and did not die in Berkeley castle in 1327. The points I have mentioned are only a small part of the evidence – I haven’t, for example, even mentioned the Fieschi letter. I don’t want to post any ‘spoilers’ or replicate Ian Mortimer’s work in detail – but I advise any one with an interest in Edward II to read the book. The 2 chapters I enjoyed the most were ‘Twelve Angry Scholars’, in which Mortimer challenges his ‘peer reviewers’ most successfully and the chapter on ‘Edward III, His Father and the Fieschi’. His research into the Fieschi family and their connections with Edward II and Edward III is incredibly detailed and pieces together the movements of Edward II after 1327 and how he was able to do so. Also outstanding is his research of Edward III’s court accounts and his patronage of his father’s tomb at Gloucester – all makes sense and is proof.

No doubt Ian Mortimer has suffered by having his name bandied about with ‘conspiracy theorist historians’, which is very unfortunate, because in my opinion, he has shown there is a great deal of evidence that Edward II survived after 1327 – far more than the sole source that Edward II died at Berkeley of ‘natural causes’, namely Lord Berkeley. When you consider some of the flimsy books written about Richard III, and I’ll name the recent example of ‘Richard III and the murder in the Tower’, as one of the worst – full of, ‘suppose’, ‘what if’ etc – it would be a real shame if Ian Mortimer’s latest work isn’t given the respect it surely deserves.


Kathryn said...

Fascinating post, Anerje, and thank you for the mention! It was great to read about how you got interested in Ed and Piers - and I'm delighted that your interest eventually led to us getting to know each other. Funny, I also wrote an essay on Ed at university, taking his death in 1327 as certain fact. I cringe to read it again now, as it's so obvious that I really, really didn't know what I was on about back then! :)

It's so true about these unchallenged 'facts' we learn, isn't it? My mother was quite indignant with me when I started talking to her about Ed's survival after 1327 - said 'but I learnt about the red-hot poker at school' as though this made it certainly true. (She's far more open to the survival now!) It's amazing how so many commentators dismiss Ian's brilliant work on this as 'speculative' or 'unconvincing', translate Berkeley's 1330 statement 'he had never known of the death' in elaborate ways to fit their version of what they want it to say, and keep condemning poor Kent as stupid and gullible when there is not one shred of evidence that he was. As Ian says, he was a brave and honourable man, and it's deeply unfair that his name has been maligned so much.

Anerje said...

Thanks Kathryn. I've been 'spreading the word' about Edward II by telling friends/colleagues about Ian's book, and everyone has said 'that's the red hot poker king' etc. It has been very hard for me to undo that thinking - well, not so much the poker story, but thinking Edward II survived. It makes you question an awful lot of so-called 'facts'. And I definitely owe you a huge THANKS!

Gabriele C. said...

I had that experience with Varus being an incompetent general. Once you go and question the sources, it turns out that Velleius Paterculus is deeply biased and was more or less licking Sejanus' behind, and Sejanus was busy destroying everyone connected with Germanicus, including Varus' son. No wonder poor Varus got the 'incompetent, lazy, greedy, and overly trusting those barbarians' treatment. If you read between the lines, it turns out that even Tiberius and Velleius himself trusted Arminius during the Pannonian War (and I bet they didn't see any reason why Varus should not have trusted him). It's easy to say I Told You So 20 years later. ;)

Anerje said...

It does make you question things you've always thought were 'true'. You should always go back to the sources and question what they thnk they knew, and why they thought it.

alice said...

Hi everybody, here is a new novel about King Edward II of England, and a website dedicated to an exciting new archival research project aimed at discovering the truth about how he really died. The novel comes highly recommended by Kathryn Warner.